Archive for the ‘St. Mary’s University College’ Tag

Serendipity Reconsidered   4 comments

STMUposterOn Thursday, April 10 I gave a public lecture-slash-reading at St. Mary’s University College where I am an instructor as well as Writer in Residence.

Readers of this blog might remember I wrote about the role of serendipity in my life in a post called Brahms, Gothic Script, Shakespeare, Serendipity and Other Considerations in January, 2012. Obviously, it’s a subject I’ve given some though to over the years and I’m looking forward to the opportunity of expounding on it further.

While the events of the Brahms, etc. post made up a small part of my talk, I focused more broadly on the role of serendipity in my life as an artist, how I ended up writing plays, how I ended up in Calgary and at St. Mary’s University College.

It’s hardly been a straight line, to put it mildly. It’s really been a long, strange journey, as they say, aided and abetted by luck, chance, circumstance and the many wonderful people I’ve had the privilege of meeting and working with along the way.

Without giving the whole thing away, here’s how I thought my talk was going to begin:

Not so long ago I was at a dinner party being hosted by a friend of mine, Marc, a very intelligent and worldly man, a professor at the U of C, originally from Belgium. (A friend of famous chocolatier Bernard Callebaut, in fact the condo where this meal took place once belonged to BC.) Mark’s wife, Susanne, is also intelligent and worldly – and beautiful, I might add. She comes from Sweden. On the evening in question, we were welcoming a visiting mathematician from Germany named Charly, and so over the course of the evening we would shift from French to German to English. (I become much more fluent in all three languages after a few glasses of wine.)

At one point in the evening I mentioned the term “serendipity,” and was surprised that Marc and Susanne weren’t familiar with the term. (Charly knew it well — in fact,  it is even one of his favourite English words.) But Marc and Susanne  had never heard the word before, in any language. Dictionaries were procured – Flemish, French, Dutch, Swedish and German, but none made any reference to this term that I am reasonably sure any native English speaker would be quite familiar with.

As you know, the English language is comprised of words that originate from many different sources, including Greek, Latin, German and French – to name but a few. And then of course there are the pure Anglo-Saxon words which tend to describe everyday things such as blood, winter and even dickhead – all of these words appeared in the deep mists of time and we don’t really know where they come from.

In the case of “serendipity,” however, unlike most of the words we use in English, we do know exactly where it came from and we even know its birthday . . .

As it turned out, I had far too much material for the hour or so I had been allotted, so this famous passage never was read.  But I did talk about various sequences of events in my life that looking back now are down right improbable, and I think everyone who attended came away with just how tenuous a career in the arts can be.

I typed up my thoughts but it became  far too long a document to share on here. Still, if you’re interested in what I had to say, let me know and I can email you a copy of my notes.

As usual, thanks for reading. And Charly, I hope you’re happy now . . .

This song really has nothing to do with anything, I just happen to like it.

 

 

59 Minutes: A Collective Creation   Leave a comment

I have just finishing up teaching another playwriting class, this one known as  ENGL 371 at St. Mary’s University College here in Calgary.  As often as I have taught such classes, I have at least a rough idea in my head of how it might go. In fact, you might think that we followed some kind of rigid plan, known these days in academic circles as a syllabus. But with this ENGL 371, such was not the case.

Good thing too, because in my mind in a creative writing classes, the syllabus is really a worst case scenario. What one hopes for, as an instructor (and no doubt the students do too), is for some kind of divine intervention to throw the whole thing off course and take you to places you never dreamed of being in.  And that’s what happened with a handful of amazing students and me this semester.

The original plan was for us to follow some classic texts as we explored the mysterious and arcane process of writing a play. As we followed Hamlet and Willy Loman and those strange creatures in urns in Beckett’s Play (please check this out for yourself on YouTube, it’s amazing!) and even Luke Stike from my own play Writer’s Block (maybe not an actually classic, but you get the idea), we would learn how to write dialogue and monologues and scenes and learn about raising the stakes and all about status and of course conflict and the rest of it . . .

A little ways into the semester, we were invited by Alberta Theatre Projects to attend the dress rehearsal of their co-pro of a play called Good Fences by the Downstage Theatre Ensemble.

Seeing that play changed everything for my class and me and for the course we would find ourselves on for the duration of ENGL 371. When we got back to the classroom, we talked about the process of collective creation. I asked the students to use the “clustering” technique in their notebooks to come up with some ideas that interested them. When we came back, there was a true consensus that what interested everyone was gender identification and the extension of that, relationships of the romantic variety. (No big surprise, they’re university students, after all.)

And so we spent the rest of our time writing scenes, monologues, poems and even songs along these themes and Hamlet and all the rest of them soon went out the window. Funny, once the students were focusing on a subject that really engaged them, things like dialogue and structure didn’t prove to be a big problem. They just took care of themselves, somehow. I gave some feedback and talked about things like keeping the stakes high and reminding them that the dialogue they were writing had to be spoken by human beings, but by and large, more and more, I just got out of their way and let them run with this idea.

Well, sometimes, maybe at the best of times, teaching is nothing more than just getting out of the way and letting the students take the initiative. I had the faith and confidence in my students to do that and they didn’t let me down. I can say modestly that some of them told me that ENGL 371 became one of the most meaningful and dare I say inspirational classes they have ever taken. Less is more, indeed. It wasn’t bad for me either!

We presented our findings in the form of the script, 59 Minutes, at the fabled Auburn Saloon on Monday evening for an audience of 50 or so family and friends and fellow students.  To use the popular vernacular, we rocked. At one point in the evening I had to shake my head and remind myself that the people up there performing were, after all, merely students who had signed up for a creative writing class.

Yet, as they performed 59 Minutes is was clear they had reached far beyond that. For that 59 minutes on Monday evening, there was magic in the air and anything seemed possible.

The members of ENGL 371 rehearse "Booty Call."

Some Thoughts on Teaching   1 comment

A million or so years ago, when I was completing my BA in English at the University of Regina I was hired by my mentor and namesake, Gene Dawson, to be his TA. This meant that I was thrust in front of a class of engineering students barely younger than me to teach them something about English grammar, which I knew very little about.

“Stay one chapter ahead and don’t let them see you sweat,” was the advice given to me then, and many times since in other situations. Anyone who plans on a career in education would do well to have that bit of advice tattooed on some part of his or her body.

I survived the class and learned something about English grammar, an increasingly rare skill to have. Here’s an example, free of charge. “Between you and I” is incorrect because between is a preposition which is followed by an object and never a subject; therefore you should be saying “Between you and me.” If you’ve been saying “Between you and I,” now you know better, so stop it. You see? Grammar can be a wonderful thing!

Since then I have taught in many place, mostly in creative writing, mostly playwriting. I have led workshops for young playwrights from around the world at World Interplay in Australia. I have taught kids from the hood in Harlem, in New York City. I’ve taught in Singapore, Lethbridge, Regina, Toronto, Vancouver and other places, classes ranging in time from a few hours to a full university semester.

My mother and her mother were both teachers. They say that the desire to teach, the need to teach, may well be hereditary, passed down through the genes. I have no reason to doubt this.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it has to do with the photo I poached and placed at the top of this post, and it comes from a Zen parable which goes like this . . . A Canadian scholar was seeking the wisdom of a famous Zen master about the secret of education. She was invited to have tea with the master. He began to pour the tea into the cup, and then continued to pour as the tea filled the cup, spilled over the edge, filled the saucer, ran onto the table and the floor, but still he kept pouring until finally she exclaimed: “Stop, Master, you can’t get any more tea into that cup!”  He stopped pouring and said, “You have learned what you have come to learn from me.” And that was the end of the lesson.

Through all the teaching experience I have had over the ensuing decades since I dazzled that class of young engineers, maybe the one thing I’ve learned is when to stop pouring it in. We tend to think in quotas, of material that must be gotten through, and so we keep pouring and pouring even as our students’ eyes glaze over because their cups are full. I believe more and more that if we just allow the time and space for our students to probe the essence of the thing we are teaching, they will somehow get it, if they are meant to get it. This is certainly true in the arts. You might not want to use such a philosophy in teaching pilots how to land an airplane, or surgeons how to cut.

Just allow . . . it’s harder than it seems. It takes a measure of wisdom and patience, and a healthy ego.

Another thing I’ve learned comes from the Hippocratic Oath, which doctors say, and I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to make teachers say parts of it as well.

                              I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and do no harm to anyone.

I always think if nothing else, if someone comes to me because he or she is interested in the theatre, don’t let me destroy their love for it. If nothing else, even if they learn nothing, do no harm. People learn in their own time, at their own pace. Maybe something they hear today will lie dormant for years, and when the time is right, suddenly it will make sense. I’ve known this to happen. A delayed reaction, sometimes by years. Finally it sinks in. We can’t always control when that will happen.

So. Just some thoughts on teaching on a cold snowy day in Calgary.

I honestly think it’s the highest calling.

Something by one of my favourite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was swirling around on Facebook the other day. I shared it with my students at St. Mary’s University College and it seems like a reasonable way to end this bit of rambling. I believe what he says is true, and that in part explains why I have spent so much time and energy over the years teaching the next great generation of artists.

Enjoy! And thanks for reading,

Life With No Car — Three Months and Counting   4 comments

Jared Jenkins who edited the Beano Anthology 2 with Jill Young, both former students of mine at St. Mary's University College.

This photo was taken behind Caffe Beano last summer at Beano’s annual Stampede Breakfast. This year, my little publishing company B House Publications, launched the second ever anthology of poetry and various writings by patrons of Calgary’s most literary coffee shop.(Copies of the Anthology are available at the coffee shop, or through me.)

But I show this photo in this little essay on life without a car because it was taken on a corner where there would normally be a lot of cars. In fact, it’s a block from where I was run over by a car (while crossing on a green light in a cross walk). Beyond the beautiful verdant foliage which we miss so much this time of year, and Jill and Jared’s smiling faces, what makes this photo so pleasant, in my mind is the absence of automobiles in a space where normally that’s all that would be found there.

Three months ago, I began a noble experiment to see if I could survive in a city like Calgary that was designed on the assumption that everyone has a car, with no car. Blessed by the best winter weather I can remember, and a light schedule throughout December and January, three months in I am happy, and a bit surprised, to report that I believe it is one of the best things I have ever done.

There have been a few obvious benefits. Financially. it was a good idea. Not having to re-lease a vehicle or pay for insurance or plates or gas or oil changes or car washes or parking has saved me around $1,500.00 and counting. To get by on the C Train, I have spent $51.00 on tickets and in three months have taken two cabs, at about $10.00 a pop which I would have done anyway as I was attending a function with free alcohol.

Health-wise, walking as much as I do now can only be good for me. I seem to average about 10 km a day, just in my day-to-day life. So, if you add it up, I’ve walked almost 1,000 km during this time — about the same as walking from here to Minot, North Dakota. (I’ve been to Minot and don’t really have a keen desire to go back, but you get my point.) I had hoped that all this walking might result in losing a few pounds in the old gut area. Sadly, I haven’t noticed a huge difference. Well, at least, if nothing else, I didn’t put any more on. Someone told me the other day that she thought I looked a little thinner, so who knows? Maybe it is making a difference.

When I made my move to become an official pedestrian, I thought that I could get by borrowing cars from friends, taking cabs, renting cars. Cars cars cars. So far, as I mentioned I have taken two cabs. One morning after Christmas I borrowed a car from a friend to take back some electronic recycling and visit the Market Mall. Another day, I cajoled my friend Zenon into giving me a ride to Ikea. That’s been it. I have had no need or desire to rent a car for a weekend. I looked at Calgary Car Share and thought about registering and having access to a car from time to time, but so far I haven’t bothered. Three months in, I can honestly say I don’t miss it at all.

When you become a pedestrian, you start to see cars as being optional. You start to question the need for them, the sheer numbers of them, and you notice maybe for the first time how our city is organized in such a way to allow for the movement of cars. Most of this organization results in the uglification of our city. It seems at some level like the city is nothing more than a series of parking lots joined by conduits allowing the movement of cars and the people in them, usually one at a time, from one parking lot to the next.

A lot of people say to me, “I wish I could do without a car but in my case I simply have to have one.” That would be the prevailing attitude of 99% of our population here. I don’t argue the point. In most cases, they’re right. And why shouldn’t they have one anyway if they want one? I can see there coming a day when I want a car again, just for the sense of freedom it brings, just to be able to go where I want, when I want. I try not to have a holier than thou attitude about it.

Yes it seems to me if we at least question the notion of the sanctity of the automobile, we have taken the first steps towards creating change. At the Walrus Magazine “The Art of the City” forum at the High Performance Rodeo a few weeks ago, Calgary author Chris Turner spoke very eloquently about this topic, and showed as an example photos from Copenhagen. The first was of a public square choked with cars, looking rather ugly and forlorn, if a town square can be said to have feelings. The second was of the same space after the city had imposed a ban on cars, and now it was looking very happy and spiffy and inviting. Through such changes, Copenhagen has been named the “most livable city” in the world. I don’t know where Calgary is on that list, but I suspect nowhere near the top.

The thing about Copenhagen and other cities that have made themselves more pleasant and livable, it doesn’t really take all that much to do it.

“But,” you might argue, “You don’t really work, you’re just a writer, you don’t have a schedule, you don’t have to be anywhere at any given time.” To a certain extent, this is true. (There really are people out there who are convinced that artists don’t really work. Our Prime Minister, for example! But that’s the surely fodder for another post.)

I’m fortunate I realize, to have the kind of schedule that allows me to walk. Although taking the C Train from my apartment on 12th Avenue to St. Mary’s in Fish Creek Park, door to door, is about ten minutes faster than it is to drive it. And having spent that 45 minutes reading instead of getting pissed off at other drivers and waiting at red lights has me showing up at school much more relaxed than driving ever did.

I am quite content to live in a modest apartment in the inner city, no desire to live in a big house in the suburbs that appears to be all garage from the street. I don’t have young children to drive around. I don’t ski or partake of mountain culture so I have no need to drive to the mountains every week. Even when I had a car, I didn’t.I think I used it mostly to drive back to Saskatchewan to visit my mother. Sadly, I can’t do that any more.

And so, I am a pedestrian, and I’m proud of it. I hope that reading this might inspire others to try, if nothing else, to become a little less dependent on their cars.

Post Script: Getting back to the Beano Anthology, a fellow pedestrian, the poet and photographer Jude Dillon, took the cover photo for the book one evening during his perambulations.  It’s a beautiful photograph, taken in the waning light of a summer’s day. Here it is:

Thanks for reading!

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